FOR CENTURIES, IRELAND has lost sons and daughters to America. Two of the main reasons for this: eight centuries of English domination and the Great Hunger of the 1840s. Yet even after the famine was over and Ireland had won her freedom from England, the island nation was not able to support all her children.
Tom O'keeffe, a native of County Kerry, the most beautiful in Ireland, left when he was 16 years old. Not for a loss of love for Ireland did he leave, but as the longtime Bronx, N.Y., resident put it: “yu can't eat the scenery.” As beautiful as Ireland is, the unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent. But in the past 20 years, millions of people have been returning to Ireland—even if only for a short time. Tourism has become the backbone of the Irish economy as people from around the world—including some of the more than 40 million Irish-Americans in the United States looking to connect with their roots—come to drink in all the Maine-sized country offers.
The marriage of the old and the new marks Dublin City. One of the leading cities of Europe, the Irish capital is home to Dublin Castle, which was built in 1208. It was the first court of King John and represents the long history of British rule in Ireland. Nearby stand the two grandest cathedrals in Dublin city, Christchurch and St. Patrick's. Both are owned by the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, but since Ireland won her independence and is predominantly Catholic, they are no longer used as places of worship and are opened for public view.
Another symbol of the past in the Irish capital is Trinity College. Founded in 1592 by the English on the site of a suppressed monastery, the college offered free education to any Catholic willing to give up his faith. In fact, Catholics needed a dispensation from the Church in order to attend and did not do so until 1966. Today, more than 70 percent of the student body is Catholic. Among other reasons, Trinity College is worth visiting to see the Book of Kells, a four-volume edition of the Gospels transcribed by Irish Monks in the year 800 and inspiration for much of Irish art.
Another city worth seeing is Cork, on the southwest border of Ireland. Established in 600, when St. Finbarr founded a monastery there, Cork City exemplifies the resilience of the Irish people. The city was attacked by both the Vikings and Normans, was burned down in 1622; had half its citizens expelled by Cromwell in 1640; was destroyed by the Williamite Forces at the Siege of Cork in 1690; and was torched by the British once more in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence.
Today Cork is home to 146,000 people and though unemployment is high, the community's steadfastness throughout history would seem to make it a fair bet that a bad economy won't ultimately defeat it. There is much Gothic architecture along the River Lee in Cork, including St. Finbarr's Cathedral, built on the site of the monastery he founded. It is worth strolling along the quays of Cork and admiring the structures and, if you are like most tourists, you'll feel obliged to travel the six miles out of the city to reach Blarney.
Thousands of people each year stop by Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone in hopes of receiving the gift of persuasion and eloquent speech. But, unless you already possess the virtue of patience, you might skip a visit to the legendary Stone. On a typical day the line begins outside the castle and winds along the stairs to the top of the castle. The line goes still further until finally a man tells you to lay down and lean your head over the edge of the castle and kiss the Stone. In two seconds it's over, and you might wonder if a peck on the stone merits an hour's wait.
Kiss or not, the trip to Blarney is worthwhile if only to see the castle itself, a formidable structure erected in 1446, and the Blarney woolen mills. Ireland's famous wool sweaters are sold by the hundreds here along with the finest Beleek and Waterford Crystal.
From Cork it's a short trip over to Kerry, often considered the most beautiful county in Ireland. The Ring of Kerry, a 110 mile route on the Iveragh Peninsula that runs along the Atlantic Ocean, takes a day to travel. Normally, two hours would suffice to cross such a short distance, but the winding roads that at times seem to be heading straight for the ocean, the occasional sheep in the road, and other pleasant diversions, slow you down. If you stop at any of the towns along the Ring, be forewarned that the sweet sounds of an Irish fiddler may draw you in and throw you off schedule. But don't fight it—twilight along the Ring of Kerry, where the land cuts into the ocean, is breathtaking and partly responsible for Kerry's reputation for beauty.
Keep in mind that the beauty of Kerry, Cork, Dublin and the other 29 counties in Ireland is only a part of what attracts visitors and keeps them coming back. What they remember even more is how strangers spoke to them like old friends, or how many people waved as they passed them on the road, or how the woman who served them breakfast sat down to chat, and reminded them that even if it was raining buckets it was a lovely soft day.
John McCormack is based in Cheshire, Conn.